Islamabad: A Pakistani court on Tuesday charged former military ruler Pervez Musharraf with the 2007 murder of opposition leader Benazir Bhutto, an unprecedented move against an ex-army chief.
It is the first time a former head of Pakistan's powerful army has been charged with any crime. While few believe there is evidence to convict Musharraf, it sends a significant message that the power of the military has been challenged in recent years.
Musharraf, who seized power in a bloodless coup in 1999 and ruled until he was forced out after Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party won elections in 2008, was charged on three counts.
"He was charged with murder, criminal conspiracy for murder and facilitation for murder," public prosecutor Chaudhry Azhar told AFP at the anti-terrorism court in Rawalpindi hearing the case.
Musharraf, who celebrated his 70th birthday last week, denied the charges. His appearance was accompanied by massive security and he was protected by scores of security officers.
Officials had said threats against his life were too severe for him to be charged on August as initially scheduled, although he had appeared in person at an earlier hearing on July 30.
"The charges were read out to him in the court. He denied the charges," said Azhar. The case was adjourned until August 27.
Musharraf's legal team dismissed the indictment.
"These charges are baseless. We are not afraid of the proceedings. We will follow legal procedures in the court," his lawyer Syeda Afshan Adil told AFP.
A United Nations report in 2010 said Bhutto's death could have been prevented and accused Musharraf's government of failing to give her adequate protection. But few believe he can be convicted of actual murder.
"There is a long way to go and it will be very, very difficult to prove that he engineered the murder conspiracy or that he was the mastermind," political analyst Imtiaz Gul told AFP.
"All we have seen is a politically motivated indictment, which may be of no real significance in the long run," he added.
Neither has the indictment silenced speculation about the possibility of a behind-the-scenes deal that could allow Musharraf to leave Pakistan without going to jail.
Current Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was sentenced to life in prison after being deposed by Musharraf in 1999, but was allowed to go into exile in Saudi Arabia.
He returned to win elections in May.
"There are external players like Saudi Arabia and former high-profile American and British officials who could possibly broker a deal the way they did for Nawaz Sharif," said Gul.
Bhutto, twice elected prime minister of Pakistan and the first woman prime minister of a Muslim country, was killed in a gun and suicide attack in Rawalpindi on December 27, 2007.
In November 2011 the same court indicted two police officers and five alleged Taliban militants over her death, but none of them have yet been brought to trial.
There has never been a public claim of responsibility.
Musharraf's government blamed the assassination on Pakistani Taliban chief Baitullah Mehsud, who denied any involvement. He was killed in a US drone attack in 2009.
The Bhutto case is only one in a series of court battles that Musharraf has faced since he returned in March from four years of self-imposed exile.
The new government headed by Sharif has said he should also stand trial for treason for subverting the constitution.
The offence carries the death penalty or life imprisonment.
Musharraf, who was barred from running in the May elections won by Sharif, is also wanted over the death of Baluchistan rebel leader Nawab Akbar Bugti during a military operation in 2006.
He has been under house arrest at his plush villa on the edge of the capital Islamabad since April 19.
Amnesty International has demanded that Pakistan hold Musharraf accountable for all rights violations committed during his rule.